Brave New Clarity

What the Kass Commission Got Right Originally published at National Review

Last Thursday, the President’s Council on Bioethics issued its first public-policy recommendations on the issue of human cloning. The report was thorough, well articulated, and exhibited a refreshing moral clarity. That stated, however, my view of the report is mixed. My first impression is that the news is mildly bad, somewhat indifferent, but also very good. Let me explain.


First the mildly bad news: The council did not recommend that all human cloning be permanently outlawed. This disappointing denouement after months of very public work is contrary to the beliefs of the majority of Americans who have been polled, legislation passed last year by the House of Representatives in a strongly bipartisan vote, the strong policy position of President Bush, and the terms of the splendid Brownback/Landrieu bill (S1899) currently in limbo in the Senate. Instead, all 17 voting members (one council member abstained) only agreed to recommend that human cloning for purposes of bringing a live baby to birth be permanently prohibited.

On the all-important issue of research cloning the council was nearly split down the middle. In an apparent compromise, a 10-7 council majority recommended a four-year moratorium on research cloning. Meanwhile, the minority urged that research cloning be permitted to proceed with all deliberate speed, but under stricter regulatory control than currently proposed in any pending federal legislation.

This is bad news for several reasons. First, the division within the council permitted some in the notoriously pro-cloning media to spin the report as if the majority had actually rejected the idea of a total ban altogether.

But that isn’t true, which is a primary reason why the news is only mildly bad. A stated purpose of a moratorium would be to permit “further democratic deliberation.” But I believe that a moratorium would actually serve to buy enough time to permit the amazing breakthroughs in adult-stem-cell research to demonstrate clearly that we don’t need cloning to obtain the medical advances in regenerative medicine for which everyone yearns.

Another problem with the compromise is that by implication the moratorium-instead-of-a-ban approach papers over the reality that in the great cloning debate there are no gray areas. Either cloning human life is moral or it isn’t. Either human cloning objectifies and commodifies human life, or it doesn’t (or doesn’t matter). Either it is wrong to create human life for the purpose of exploiting and destroying it, or the ends — potential future medical treatment — justify the means. We can delay confronting these crucial moral questions, but they will not go away.

Still, a moratorium is better than full-speed-ahead to Brave New World. Thus, if given the chance most members of the loose anti-human-cloning coalition would accept a legally binding moratorium in a heartbeat. Indeed, Senators Brownback and Landrieu have agreed to accept a moratorium as a compromise to the current impasse in the Senate.

Which brings us to why the impact of council’s report on the legality of cloning is indifferent. The cloning debate has been captured by the intense gravitational pull of election year politics. Since it is perceived to involve the all-pervasive abortion issue (even though abortion is factually irrelevant in the debate), and is viewed by many as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for cultural dominance between the science/rationalistic and Judeo/Christian/moralistic perspectives in the public square, a moratorium compromise is all but impossible. And since a moratorium would be viewed widely — if mistakenly — as a “pro-life victory” (the anti-cloning coalition is made up of both pro-life and pro-choice advocates), no matter how well-documented and thorough the council’s report, regardless of its scholarship, whatever the logical impact of its arguments, even a unanimously urged moratorium would not have changed enough votes in the Democrat-controlled United States Senate to get past the cloture impasse.


Now the good news, and it is very good news indeed. One of the most personally frustrating aspects of my involvement in this struggle has been the easy abuse of language and definitions resorted to as an advocacy tactic by pro-cloners. Knowing that a strong majority of the American people oppose human cloning for any purpose, cloning advocates have resorted to a never-ending word game, continually changing and shifting the terms and definitions of the debate (aided by a compliant media) until virtually all meaning has gone out of the discourse. Thus, living human embryos have been transformed before our very eyes into mere “balls of cells” or “fractured eggs.” Even the descriptive labels have continually shifted as pro-cloners desperately searched for terms that would overcome the public’s unease about human cloning. Research cloning was first labeled “therapeutic cloning.” When that word game didn’t change the poll numbers, proponents decided to lose the C-word altogether. Suddenly research cloning was to be called “SCNT” (for somatic-cell nuclear transfer) while the identical cloning technique that leads to a live birth was to remain “reproductive cloning.”

The council report took a great stride toward finally ending this obfuscation. The council unanimously agreed that the life that is brought into being via a successful SCNT cloning procedure is not some ambiguous collection of cells but a “cloned human embryo.” Better yet, the council defined “human cloning” as the “asexual production of a new human organism…” (My emphasis). Cloning intending to lead to a live birth is to be called simply, “cloning-to-produce-children,” and cloning for experimentation is to be called, “cloning-for-biomedical-research.” Ah, out of the verbal smog and into the refreshing air of linguistic clarity!

Establishing precise terms and accurate definitions is a crucial victory for opponents of human cloning. Why? Definitional clarity leads to intellectual honesty, which is the one thing that cloning proponents have avoided like the plague for the last six months. For example, read the argument propounded by pro-cloning Senator Diane Feinstein (D, Calif.) on the Senate floor on June 14, 2002 in support of her bill that would ban cloning-to-produce-children while explicitly authorizing cloning-for-biomedical research:

The beauty of our legislation is that …this most promising form of stem cell research, somatic nuclear cell transplantation, [would] be conducted on a human egg for up to 14 days only, under strict standards and federal regulation. …The reason for 14 days is to limit any research before the so-called primitive streak can take over that egg. The stem cell research can only take place on an unfertilized egg. …An unfertilized egg is not capable of becoming a human being. Therefore, we limit stem cell research to unfertilized eggs.

What a howler! Stem cells cannot be obtained from an unfertilized egg, which, after all, is only a single cell. No, as the name implies, embryonic stem cells come from embryos, generally after about five days of development. Moreover — and one wouldn’t expect this concept to be so hard to comprehend — an embryo is not an egg; it is a unique and self-contained organism. Nor is it possible for a primitive streak to develop in an unfertilized egg. The appearance of the primitive streak — which is the nervous system coming into being — arises when the embryo has developed to the point that its stem cells are transforming (differentiating) into specific tissue types. And while it is unquestionably true that an unfertilized egg is incapable of becoming a human being, a human clone embryo could be so capable. Indeed, the potential of a human cloned embryo to develop into a born baby is precisely why Feinstein’s legislation seeks to outlaw her so-called “unfertilized eggs” from being implanted into wombs.

Reading this and other similar Feinstein bromides (she assured the viewers of February 24 Meet the Press that her bill would “clearly make it illegal to inject one of these stem cells into a woman’s uterus” to cause pregnancy), I can only conclude that either the good senator is as dumb as President Bush’s critics pretend him to be or she is utterly disingenuous in her advocacy.

Finally, the minority supporting the legalization of cloning-for-biomedical research may have unwittingly performed a most valuable service to the anti-cloning cause. Critics have long warned that research cloning reduces human life to a mere natural resource. The minority tried to wiggle out of this consequence by asserting that the promulgation of strong regulations governing the scientific use of clone human embryos would prove our great “respect” for the human lives that would be experimented upon and destroyed biomedical research. Thus, rather than being a “natural resource,” the minority opined, these clones should be better considered a “human resource.”

But that is a distinction without any difference whatsoever. First, we regulate the exploitation of natural resources, sometimes very strictly. For example, we don’t permit logging of old-growth forests in some places. The government may soon enact a strict moratorium in California on taking ocean-bottom fish. The list could go on and on. Moreover, by the very use of the term “human resource,” the council minority is admitting that cloning-for-biomedical-research involves the creation of one category of human life that are only intended to serve the needs and desires in other categories of human life. In other words, the council minority advocates the creation of an exploitable and expendable subclass of humanity.

There is a word that describes using humans as chattel, and that word is “slavery.” True, the “new slavery” of human cloning (a term I believe to have been coined by Jeremy Rifkin), would take a different form than the old slavery. But it too would be a great moral wrong. Thanks to the obfuscation-clearing analysis of the President’s Council on Bioethics, cloning opponents are now in a much better position to make that case.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the author ofCulture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America. His next book will be A Consumer’s Guide to Brave New World, an exploration of the morality and business aspects of human cloning.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.